PPG Paints Arena – Pittsburgh Penguins
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The PPG Paints Arena is one of the NHL’s newest buildings, opening in 2010 across the street from the beloved old Igloo in the eastern part of downtown Pittsburgh. With over fifteen years of Sports and Entertainment Centers in other cities to inspire the architects, PPG Paints Arena feels like a building that represents a synthesis of modern arena design. It’s a cavernous palace of a building that dominates the city block on which it sits, clad in yellow brick and glass, and seems to be both the archetype and culmination of fifteen years of arena-building.
Food & Beverage 4
The most notable thing about the beverage selection at PPG Paints Arena is that it is the only major sporting venue in North America in which neither Coke nor Pepsi hold the pouring rights. At PPG Paints Arena, if you want a soft drink, your options are provided by the Dr Pepper Snapple group, which means the options are RC Cola, 7Up, Dr Pepper, Country Time Lemonade and Schweppes ginger ale. You wouldn’t think it would make such a difference, but having neither Coke nor Pepsi really makes the selection stand out, as do all of the Pens fans walking around with green 7Up paper cups.
As for the beer, local favorites like Yuengling and Iron City complement the national macrobrews well.
As for the food selection, local favourites like Primanti Brothers sandwiches (meat, coleslaw, French fries, all on Italian bread) are widely available, along with the usual arena mainstays. The food comes out hot and tasty, though it is a little pricey even by arena standards. On the upper concourse, the lines can get long at intermissions, but this is mostly a function of the arena’s massive size and not of any lack of forethought or unused space.
For years now, the Penguins have given out their glossy gameday program for free at the door, which is a nice touch from a classy organization, and sets the bar for the evening. The Pens have really tried to make the fan experience something special, and have mostly succeeded.
The arena’s video and ribbon boards are used to great effect without being disruptive, and the volume levels are appropriate. The team’s matching banners hang across the building and the black and gold colours are everywhere, right down to the colours of the seats. The angle of the seating is steep as well, necessitated by the building’s shoehorned downtown footprint. Seats hang over the ice and look straight down.
The atmosphere is wide open and the ushers are extremely friendly – at one point I accidentally ventured into the club seating section during my most recent visit and the usher actually apologized for kicking me out!
Unlike the bar and restaurant-heavy area that PNC Park sits in, PPG Paints Arena’s neighborhood is more “up and coming”. To the north, the arena’s neighbor is a massive parking lot that once held the Igloo, as well as the lots that once surrounded it. To the south and east, the Fifth Avenue strip contains mostly blue-collar bars, working-class housing, and the Duquesne University campus. It’s not a dangerous area by any stretch; it is just an ungentrified blue-collar district with a number of empty storefronts right across the street from the arena. One would imagine that the arena’s presence will slowly gentrify the neighborhood over the years – the few sports bars that exist are hopping on gamenight – but the process hasn’t fully gotten underway yet.
Even when things were at their worst in Pittsburgh, before the Crosby draft and with unstable ownership, the yinzers still came out in droves to support the Penguins. Today, with the Pens perpetually competitive, they’re easily the second most popular team in the city, behind the Steelers, but easily ahead of the Pirates and college sports. Pens home games have sold out for years, and the knowledge level of fans is very high.
And yet… I was somehow expecting more. Pittsburgh is one of the great blue-collar cities in America, a city that famously lives and dies with the successes and failures of its teams, and while the atmosphere and noise levels are perfectly adequate, this is not a raucous Nassau Coliseum crowd, or dare I say it, a Philadelphia crowd. Pens fans are polite, knowledgeable, and cheer at the right times, but don’t have quite the same level of let loose insanity as in some other NHL cities.
The arena’s downtown location obviously makes parking difficult, but everyone seems to drive in anyway. Pittsburgh has a small light rail that’s free within the downtown area, but it really only serves the southern suburbs and the massive parking lots across the Allegheny River by Heinz Field, so if you’re coming in from anywhere else, a car is the only option. Traffic gridlocks around the arena on game days, and particularly on the narrow streets by the Monongahela River that were never designed for a sports crowd. We left our hotel thinking that we’d arrive about an hour early for the game, and by the time we’d made it through the gridlock, found a parking spot, and made it into the building, we were a half-hour later than we’d planned.
Within the arena, things could be better too. PPG Paints Arena was built on the side of a hill, which is common for Pittsburgh, but what this means is that “street level” has two different meanings depending on whether you’re on the north or south side of the rink. If you enter on Fifth Street, you need to go up a massive escalator before you even get to the entry plaza where your ticket will be scanned, and you also need to remember to go down an extra level on the way out. Signage could be better to help first time or infrequent visitors. It also takes way too long to clear the upper bowl after the game – exit staircases aren’t very clearly identified, and so most of the traffic queues are for the down escalators. The backups can take ages to clear.
That said, the concourses are wide, the sections are clearly marked, and wandering around is simple. The bathrooms are spacious and plentiful. The arena does a lot of things right, but better signage would help immensely.
Return on Investment 4
If you’re a Penguins fan you will find the building to be a Valhalla; one of the truly great home rinks in the NHL, dripping black and gold and with incredible sight lines and passion. For the neutral fan, it’s good, but tickets are very expensive and the atmosphere just isn’t quite in the very top tier of NHL arenas. For the price, it’s very good, but there is just a certain something missing.
The Penguins are a classy organization from the free program on the way in to the final buzzer, and the team has embraced its history, its city, and its character in building the new arena. It’s not a cramped and intimate venue like the Igloo was; PPG Paints Arena is massive, with a ceiling that extends into the heavens above the upper bowl.
It’s imbued everywhere with Penguins history and character, from the gold stripe rows of seats in the middle of the sea of black, to the team portrait murals in the emergency exit stairwells. And in spite of this, even though Pittsburgh is a six hour drive from me and the Pens are the fifth-closest NHL team, as a neutral fan I wouldn’t be in a huge hurry to go back. It is a beautiful, friendly building with excellent sightlines and no major flaws, and yet there’s also nothing to push it over the top into the very uppermost echelons of the NHL.
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